ROCKINGHAM — County Commissioner Thad Ussery will step down following Tuesday’s election, bringing an end to a 24-year career that has spanned Richmond County’s recovery from a rash of unemployment in the 1990s, a radical change in the county’s medical options, shifts in farming from row crops to poultry and hogs, and the more recent additions of such companies as Enviva and Direct Pack, which have signaled a positive change in the county’s standing statewide.
Ussery, 81, lives in a serene lakeside home in Weatherstone east of Rockingham, but his start was significantly more humble.
He was born in Ellerbe, though his family moved frequently, and said he got know Richmond County by going to school all over the area: Mount Gilead, Ellerbe, Roberdel and Rockingham, where he graduated from high school.
His father was a tenant farmer until, Ussery said, he “got tired of losing money.” In 1954, the elder Ussery went to work full time for the railroad, where he had started in 1947. The years on the farm were formative for young Thad, who says he still loves to “get in the dirt” of his garden every spring. He grows tomatoes, peas and squash, among other things.
“I wouldn’t take anything (in place of) my raising,” he says. “I can appreciate anything.”
Like each endeavor he described undertaking in an interview Saturday, Ussery continues to farm as a “challenge” that helps him stay busy.
His first challenge was marrying his wife, Mary Jane, after graduating from high school and then opting for an apprenticeship at the railroad instead of college. He spent 11½ years learning the trade, but once he did, it stopped challenging him. He began to look for his next move.
After much prayer, Ussery had a conversation with a man who asked whether he’d ever considered going into business for himself. The man suggested steel working as an industry Ussery could get into, and in 1968 Ussery started Richmond Steel and Welding.
There were rough patches.
Ussery recalls that early on, with the mortgage he took out to start the business weighing on him, he found himself “waking up without a job to go to.” When a door-to-door cleaning man offered him cleaning supplies, Ussery replied, “I haven’t done anything to mess up yet.”
But God sent help when he needed it, Ussery said.
He “put all (his) peas into one basket” to be subcontracted on a job for a new school in Sanford and drove all the way there under the impression that the contractor wanted to sign off on the deal. When Ussery arrived, the contractor led him into a strange room and told him that he already had given the project to another company. Ussery said he “exploded” and went home depressed.
But within a week, Ussery had more work that he could possibly do with a bigger profit margin than he had ever had, while that contractor soon went bankrupt, never working another day in construction after the deal for the Sanford school. If Ussery had got the job, it might have put him out of business. The experience taught him a lesson that has lasted to this day: if something doesn’t go right, there’s probably a good reason for it.
And the experience seasoned him for his next challenge: running for public office.
Ussery joined the county board in 1994, was elected chairman the following year and was re-elected chairman the next two years. He said he heard the negativity surrounding the county, which — as it still is — was a poorer, Tier 1 county, but he saw something different.
“There’s a spirit of compassion and unity in Richmond County that many larger counties don’t have,” Ussery said. “That’s something that money can’t buy.”
One of his first moves was to stop the money being lost on county-financed ambulance service and transition to private service that could provide paramedic-level care on the scene that could save lives. The idea threatened the struggling, volunteer-based rescue squads, who became “territorial” and started a campaign to impeach Ussery. Soon, bumper stickers popped up all over the county — the equivalent of something going viral these days.
The squads believed he wanted to replace them entirely, Ussery said, but he secured a condition in the contract with FirstHealth under which the company would agree to train the rescue squads to provide paramedic-level care for free. The “Impeach Thad” campaign settled down — but not without causing much distress to his family.
“Negativity always hurts your family more than it hurts you,” he said.
Ussery’s efforts to privatize health care paid off in 2008, when he fell ill with pancreatitis. He became severely dehydrated, and his blood pressure dropped to 50 over 30. Without the paramedics who gave him fluids as soon as they arrived — rather than wait until he got to the hospital — he might not have made it. During his recovery, he stayed a part of county meetings by avidly reviewing the agendas, and contributing comment and votes over the phone.
Since then, he has been a key figure on a board that has guided Richmond County from a 15 percent unemployment rate to 5.3 percent, added more than $2 billion to the county’s tax base and cut the tax rate from 0.97 in 1996 to 0.83 today.
He said he wouldn’t change anything about these years, but if he had known what would come along with a career in politics — “refereeing” tense meetings between commissioners and business leaders, the strain on his family — he might not have gotten into it.
Why is he leaving the board?
“Age has a little to do with it,” he answered with a smirk. But he also wants to spend more time with his wife, whose health has worsened in recent years.
Ussery will stay in several of his current board positions, including the Sandhills Center Board of Directors.
“I’m not ‘quitting’ because I don’t want to quit,” he said. “I don’t like sitting on this couch.”
Commissioner Thad Ussery poses with the "Impeach Thad" bumper stickers that went "viral" in the mid-90s after county rescue squads opposed his efforts to bring in private ambulance service to Richmond County that could provide a higher level of medical care at the scene of emergencies.
Commissioner Thad Ussery in his home in Weatherstone.
Commissioner Thad Ussery poses next to an automatic aluminum grill he welded himself. He said he can cook a "pile" of steaks on it. Ussery also made two trailers himself and modified a drag pan from a three-point to a one-point to fit his tractor.
Commissioner Thad Ussery at the lake on his property in Weatherstone.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]